Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill - Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 3rd December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Trafford Baroness Williams of Trafford The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister for Equalities (Department for International Development) 3:30 pm, 3rd December 2018

I thank noble Lords who have spoken in this debate and particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for moving her amendment. She has set out her position on this clearly and consistently, but I hope that your Lordships will indulge me if I rehearse the reasons why the Government cannot support the amendments.

As the noble Baroness said, Clause 1 amends Section 12(1)(a) of the Terrorism Act 2000, under which it is currently an offence to invite another person to support a proscribed terrorist organisation. An invitation in this context may be explicit or indirect, and may be implicit or opaque, but for a conviction to be secured the prosecution must be able to prove that the person intended to influence others to support the terrorist organisation. I recognise that, when considered in the abstract, this may appear to be the right threshold for the offence. However, in its operation it has been shown to leave a significant gap in the ability of the police, the CPS and the courts to act against hate preachers and radicalisers, as noble Lords have pointed out. This is because such individuals will often be careful to err on just the right side of the law. They will express opinions and beliefs which, in the judgment of a reasonable person, would be likely to have the effect of encouraging others to support proscribed terrorist groups but will stop short of statements which would go far enough to allow the CPS to prove that they intended such encouragement. This is despite them clearly and unambiguously risking harm to the public by virtue of their expressions.

This gap is illustrated by some of the cases to which I have previously drawn the House’s attention, and which were described by Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu in his evidence to the Public Bill Committee in the House of Commons. I urge noble Lords to examine that evidence carefully. In those cases, it was not possible to prosecute prolific and high-profile preachers of hate who had made highly inflammatory public speeches which were very clear about the speaker’s own support for terrorist organisations and methodology and which were on any reasonable assessment likely to cause their audience to be influenced to support a proscribed organisation. They included open admiration for Daesh and other terrorist groups and praise for their methods, ideology and activities.

However, I hope I will reflect the views of many noble Lords when I say that the current position strikes the wrong balance if it allows such obviously harmful behaviour to go unchallenged. This is behaviour that can have a powerful effect in initiating or moving along the process of radicalisation. There are radicalisers and hate preachers who have, time and again, been shown to have played a prominent and influential role in the backgrounds of those who have been convicted of planning or carrying out terrorist attacks.

Clause 1 is intended to close the gap I have described by bringing within the ambit of the Section 12(1)(a) offence individuals who are reckless as to whether they will cause this harm to arise. We have previously debated what is meant by “reckless”, but I think it is worth briefly setting this out again, before I turn to my concerns with the noble Baroness’s proposed amendments to Clause 1.

To answer the noble Baroness’s question, the term “reckless” is a well-established and well-understood concept in the criminal law, and one with which the courts are familiar, in particular as a result of clear case law established by the then Appellate Committee of this House in 2003 in the case of R v G and another. A person acts recklessly where he or she is aware that in the circumstances there is a risk that their conduct will result in the proscribed outcome, and they none the less engage in that conduct in circumstances where a reasonable person would not.

So, under Clause 1, a person might act recklessly if, in the course of addressing an audience consisting primarily of individuals whom he believes are of an Islamist extremist mindset, he speaks of his own support for Daesh, believing he has a degree of influence over the audience and being aware of the risk that members of the audience will be influenced by him to support Daesh. I hope noble Lords will not disagree when I say that a reasonable person would not, and should not, proceed to make that speech in those circumstances. A person who none the less does so would therefore be doing so recklessly. It may not be possible to prove beyond reasonable doubt an intention to influence their audience to support Daesh, but I consider it appropriate and proportionate that the courts can hold them to account if they are reckless in this way. Clause 1 will ensure that this is the case.

Turning now to Amendment 1, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, set out a concern that the reference to a statement that is “supportive” of a proscribed organisation might risk a person being found guilty of a terrorism offence having tweeted their support for a legitimate political objective which happens to be shared by a proscribed terrorist organisation. She gave the examples of support for an independent Kurdistan and for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Occupied Territories, both of which are entirely legitimate standpoints but which are also objectives of, respectively, the PKK and the military wings of Hamas and Hezbollah. I have previously assured her, and I am happy to repeat those assurances, that this is not the case. In her example, there would be no suggestion that the person supported terrorist methods to achieve the political objectives to which they aspired or that they supported any proscribed terrorist organisation. There would, therefore, be no basis on which a reasonable person might equate such a statement with support for the PKK or for the proscribed wings of Hamas or Hezbollah or might anticipate that a listener would be influenced to support those organisations. As such, the statements would not meet the recklessness test and would clearly not be caught by Clause 1.

The noble Baroness further highlighted in Committee that the existing Section 12(1)(a) offence refers to,

“inviting support for a proscribed organisation”,

whereas Clause 1 refers to,

“opinion or belief that is supportive of a proscribed organisation”.

She suggested that “supportive” is, intentionally, a broader wording, which will cast the net of the offence more widely than would be the case if the word “supports” were used instead.

I think we are all clear that there is no difference in meaning in the context of the drafting. The existing Section 12(1) offence criminalises those who invite others to support a terrorist group. That word has the wider meaning that the noble Baroness described, repeating what the court said in Choudary, but in the new offence, we are talking about an opinion or belief. As a matter of syntax, an opinion or belief cannot support an issue; a person supports something. That is why parliamentary counsel has used the word “supportive” here. There is no intention to introduce a wider concept than the existing offence. Crucially, new Section 12(1)(b) requires that a person will be encouraged to support a proscribed group by the expression.

However, I can offer the noble Baroness a clear assurance that it would in any event have no meaningful impact on the effect of the clause, the scope of the offence or the range of causes that would be caught by it. This would be exactly the same whichever formulation were used.

Amendment 2 would remove the recklessness test and replace it with one that effectively repeats the existing position in the Section 12(1)(a) offence, so it would still be necessary to prove the same deliberate act of invitation to support.

The noble Baroness has made it clear that she does not support the purpose of Clause 1, and I respect that view, even if I do not agree with it, but I should make it clear to noble Lords that the amendment would entirely nullify the utility of this clause and, as such, were it to be made, we might as well simply strike the whole clause from the Bill.

I hope that with that explanation, noble Lords are satisfied and the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.